Times Past, Present, and Future: A Look Back at Starman, Part VI
Part VI: Stars, My Destination
Welcome back, dear readers. Thank you for your patience and effort in reading these columns. If they have led you to read the 'Starman' comic, or at least pick up a couple of old issues, then I have done my job and introduced you to a charming and unique corner of the DCU.
This time we'll be looking at "Stars My Destination", the 14-part saga that followed Jack Knight, Mikaal Tomas, and a hologram of Ted Knight on a trip through time and space. It is the longest 'Starman' story arc, longer than "Grand Guignol" by a single issue. But unlike "Guignol", "Stars" features several smaller stories that can be enjoyed independent of the overall Starman saga. Other than the first issues, this would be a good place for a new reader to start.
"Stars" is also the beginning of Peter Snejbjerg and Keith Champagne's tenure as regular artists. While Tony Harris continued to paint covers for the series, he never drew another issue after #45. Some say the book wasn't the same after he left. I say Snejbjerg and Champagne are fine artists, Harris' equals in talent, though their styles are different. Of course, I started reading the book with issue #50, so I might be biased.
Before I begin, I ought to say that the title of this story most likely comes from the novel "The Stars My Destination", by Alfred Bester. This novel was the recipient of the first Hugo Award for Science Fiction ever given. Bester is remembered as one of the most influential and brilliant sci-fi writers of all time. His first two novels, "Stars", and "The Demolished Man" are classics and available in new printings. I just finished reading my copy, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and it's even more exciting and thought-provoking than I remembered it. The passage of time, even the 50 tumultuous years that have passed since the books were written, have little dated these works. I heartily recommend them.
It is also worth noting that Bester wrote comic books in the 1940s, most notably the Green Lantern. It was Bester who wrote the famous Oath of the Green Lantern, ("In brightest day, In blackest night, etc.), the only characteristic carried over to the "new" Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, in 1959. I think it's appropriate that the title of Bester's most famous novel be used for this story that sees so many Silver Age DC space-based characters return for one more adventure.
But enough about the past. Let's get on with the present, (and future). As always, all issues are written by James Robinson. But this time, David Goyer lends a hand at writing. He helps write the book beginning with #48 and assists on every issue through issue #60, except #54. The art teams are noted individually.
City without Light, Part I: Issue #47
A: Steve Yeowell(p) & Wade Von Grawbadger(i)
With Jack and Mikaal in outer space, we see how Opal City fares without her champion. Ted discusses recent events with The Shade, especially the lives of the O'Dares. Matt and Hope are fighting super-villains, Mason is visiting Charity, and Clarence is flourishing at his new job of super-hero liaison.
But dark troubles are brewing. Dudley Donovan, a professional snitch, is about to tell Ted of troubles ahead when he is killed by an arrow. Later, Commissioner Woo is torn to pieces by what appear to be The Shade's shadow demons. These two events will prove to be connected and vital in the days ahead.
A Blue World/ Talking with David '99: #48-49
A: Steve Yeowell, (pencils on #48, #49, inks #49) Keith Champagne, (inks #48)
Jack meets his ship's Mother Box, which takes the form and memories of his father. "Ted" explains how cosmic energy and New Gods' technology will greatly increase the speed of their ship. Provided, of course, that nothing goes wrong.
Mikaal has a nightmare where two of his old enemies, Komak and Turran Kha, kill his first love, Lyssa. Mik lashes out and, still asleep, destroys the ship's controls. Our heroes are forced to land on a small blue world to make repairs. They find the planet covered in large plant growths. They also meet its sole inhabitant: Solomon Grundy.
This version of Grundy was imprisoned in space by the Justice Society in the 1960s. He explains how he drifted for years until he landed on this world. It turns out this world had been visited by Swamp Thing (see the end of Moore's run on 'Saga of the 'Swamp Thing'), who created the strange plant life. These plants, combined with Grundy's own plant-based physiology, were able to bring him back from death. This allowed a new Grundy to be born on Earth, while this one was alone for decades.
Jack's not really interested in hearing this, since Grundy has smashed Mik's helmet, slowly killing him. On the edges between life and death, Mik meets David Knight. David tells Mik how he'll have to learn how to be a hero again, because Opal will need a defender, and Jack won't be there. David won't elaborate on what he means.
"Ted" appears in time to save jack and Mik and destroy Grundy. They continue on their way, when they are intercepted by a large black cloud. When they exit they find themselves in a distant part of the galaxy, and boarded by a party led by. . .
Star Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes.
"Stars My Destination" is as much about Mikaal as it is about Jack. Mik rediscovers his warrior spirit, his will to fight, as he travels through space and is called upon to fight more often. When he returns, he will act and feel more like a member of the warrior race he rebelled against. Whether this change is for good or ill remains to be seen.
Lighting the Way: Issue #50
A: Peter Snejbjerg, (p), Von Grawbadger and Keith Champagne, (i)
Jack, Mik, and "Ted" find themselves in the 30th Century, face to face with Thom Kallor, Star Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the heir apparent to the Starman legacy. Thom tells them about the Black Colossus, a mysterious black cloud that has consumed entire planets and now threatens Thom's home world of Xanthu.
The three men are joined by Umbra, another Legionnaire with shadow-based powers. She recognizes Mikaal, and tells him they're from the same race. Further, she says Mikaal with become a great champion of her people, and give her her powers in the 21st Century. Mik's not comfortable knowing all of this, especially the part where he "dies valiantly".
Jack, Mik, Thom, and Umbra enter the colossus to find the organic mass detected at its center. Along the way, they battle strange shadow monsters. Well, the others fight, Mik mostly stands around, much to Umbra's disappointment and scorn. After 8 days of near-constant fighting, they find the Colossus' center and source: The Shade.
The Shade quickly explains how Jack's rod and Mikaal's hidden power can cure him, (rather than killing The Shade, as Mikaal seems so eager to do). One big blast of cosmic energy later, and they're all sitting around sipping tea. The Shade explains how his archenemy, "Culp", used/will use Jack's rod to turn his shadow powers against him. He further relates how he learned to travel through time, and how he knew to bring Jack here. The Shade was told to do so by Danny Blaine, the Starman to follow Jack. Blaine, The Shade says, is the name Thom Kallor will use when he travels to the 21st Century. Thom's naturally upset, since he knows Blaine's/his own terrible death. But Jack offers the advice of just focusing on one day at a time, and no one's future is certain.
Jack may have eaten those words when he travels back into the past, and winds up orbiting Krypton in 1922.
This was the first issue of 'Starman' that I ever read. What struck me the most was the talking. Never before had I seen comic book characters talk so much about such trivial things. Here was a hero who knew things like Captain Action costumes, jukebox colors, and Richard Stark novels. Even though I only had a vague idea what he was talking about, Jack Knight came across as a guy who was an incredibly hip nerd. He knew everything about the best of what most people never appreciate. More importantly, by giving a character such specific personality traits, in creating someone with such unique and unusual taste, Robinson made Jack Knight seem more like a real person. Instead of painting Jack in the same broad strokes of anger, pride, or heroism from which most are created, Robinson gave him a fully realized personality. Jack Knight is a person, with enough strengths and flaws to alienate or possibly offend some readers. Just like real people do to each other.
'Starman' #50 also has two solid pages of talking heads. Literally, two pages of regular, evenly spaced panels containing nothing but heads and dialogue. In a medium filled with action, color, and forced excitement, such quiet moments can feel as both shocking and comforting.
Finally, a few notes on continuity. The Shade mentions Culp for the second time, (the first was in 'Showcase '96', #4). Thom Kallor's future as the next Starman had been predicted in Mark Waid and Alex Ross' 'Kingdom Come'. (He survived long enough to appear in 'The Kingdom', which may or may not be a fate worse than death.) The Shade elects to stay in the 30th Century to see how Opal fares. If I remember my Legion future-history, Earth is destroyed in The Great Disaster. This would compel The Shade to build the planet-sized Opal City seen in 'Starman Annual' #1.
Finally, this was the first, and only, issue of 'Starman' to have an enhanced cover. The title was printed in gold ink. What more does it need?
Midnight in the House of El/A Rather Strange Adventure/Stranger Still: Issues #51-#53
A: Peter Snejbjerg (p) & Keith Champagne (i)
Our heroes find themselves on Krypton in the distant past. They are found by a 17-year-old Jor-El, who's excited to learn about space travel and Earth. Suddenly, they are captured by robots serving Jor-El's father, Seyg-El. Seyg-El interrogates Jack and Mikaal, believing them to be agents of Black Zero, enemies of the ruling council. Jack and Mik escape with Jor-El's help. They leave Jor-El with coordinates to Earth and pictures of its people. Jack decides not to tell Jor-El about Krypton's fate, since their trip to the 30th Century showed that some futures are best left unknown.
May I point out that James Robinson has just made Jack Knight a small, yet vital, element of Superman's history? Robinson is THE master of the retcon!
While passing by the planet Rann, Mikaal suddenly gets the sense that his old nemesis Turran Kha is on the planet. They land to an elaborate welcoming ceremony and are greeted by Adam Strange. Strange, for those of you who don't care about comics made before the 80s, (shame shame!), is an Earthman who teleports between Earth and Rann via a Zeta beam. Strange tells our heroes that delegates from other planets have been arriving on Rann for several days to sign a peace treaty forming the League of Planets. He hopes this treaty will lead to the United Planets.
Jack, Mik, and Strange find Turran Kha's abandoned ship. No doubt, he's here to prevent the treaty's signing. Sardath, Strange's cold-hearted father-in-law, believes Kha has been employed by the Crown Imperial, a planetary empire with whom Rann has been fighting in a cold war. Unable to find Kha, our heroes attend a party with the other delegates. They realize how Kha and his men have disguised themselves, but are too late to stop him. In the fight that follows, Kha kidnaps Strange's daughter, and Jack Knight is killed.
Back on Earth, Sadie meets Jack in a dream. He re-lives his death and tells her to wrap up his unfinished business. Upon waking, Sadie calls Charity the fortune teller. Of course, Jack doesn't stay dead (there still 27 more issues to go here, people). Rann's technology is able to clone him back to life. The shock of not being dead quickly passes when Jack realizes he no longer has his tattoos!
Jack learns that Kha has threatened to kill Strange's daughter if Rann signs the treaty. Sardath is adamant to sign, even though it means his daughter's life. Jack, Mik, and Strange track down Kha's hideout. In the battle, Strange's Zeta beam wears off, and he vanishes to Earth. Mik and Kha fight fiercely, but Kha disappears in the confusion. When everything seems hopeless, Jack receives unexpected back-up in the form of the delegates. Later, Sardath explains how the Ted hologram convinced him to tell the delegates about his granddaughter's kidnapping. This inspired the delegates to fight together, instead of driving them apart. He also makes a cryptic remark about how the war with the Crown Imperial "won't be a problem for very long". Sardath's manner leaves Jack feeling cold.
Although it's only a 2-part story, "A Rather Strange Adventure" and "Stranger Still" is filled with tension, excitement, romance, passion, high drama, fear, family, friendship, humor, espionage, mystery, another reference to Alan Moore's run on "Swamp Thing", and even death. What more do you need?
A Rich Man's Folly: Issue #54
A: Craig Hamilton (p) & Ray Snyder (i)
In Opal City, 1899, Herman Moll builds a ship to sail through space. He considers this his masterpiece, the invention that will win him fame and respect. His cousins, however, want him killed before he spends the family fortune on this 'mad scheme'. The Molls first contact The Shade. He refuses, and alerts Brain Savage, the sheriff at that time, to the Moll's hiring of an assassin from Gotham. Savage saves Herman but kills the assassin, and with him any chance to arrest the Molls of attempted murder. The next day, Herman Moll is committed to a sanitarium by his cousins. Savage darkly notes, "Even if he weren't loco that morning, he'd sure as hell be raving by midnight." And yet even he must agree that a ship to the starts sound like a crazy idea.
Moll's ship, of course, is the spaceship that Jack & Co. is currently flying through space. When Ted Knight was preparing it for space travel, he was impressed at how Moll had designed an engine fuelled by cosmic energy. A genius destroyed by people for his crime of not thinking like them is an all too common tragedy. Sometimes I wonder if stories have deliberate anti-intellectual messages. The next time you watch a cartoon, TV show, or movie involving a smart, 'nerdy', but unpopular character, see if that character is made to act dumber to fit in with the crowd. It happens more than you'd think.
Let me add that Craig Hamilton's pencil work is among the most detailed and elaborate I've seen in a comic book. Many times in this story parallels are visually created between people and animals. Scenes of a cockfight are interspersed with a shoot out. That requires a level of craft and understanding of a visual medium not often seen in comics. This reinforces my believe that "Starman" is a showcase of some of the most talented, yet underrated, artists in comics, in addition to being one of the best-written comics of all time.
Taxi-Cab Confessions: Issue #55
A: Snejbjerg, Weston, McCrea, and Champagne, (don't know if Champagne inked all the pages.)
Bar none, this is the funniest issue of the series and one of the funniest comics you'll ever read! In 2153, Space Cabbie, the intergalactic cab driver, picks up two fares for he Karloff sector. He tells his passengers about how the debris field there was created in a fight between our time-tossed Starman and an alien pirate called Jarko the Jovian, who had kidnapped the also time-tossed hero, Starfire of the Titans. Jarko also accuses Mikaal of cutting off his hand for trying to 'taste the favors' of Jack. Jarko seems to be referring to an event in his past, but in Jack and Mik's future. Jack and Jarko fight for Starfire's freedom, with Jarko using a familiar wooden staff. Suddenly, the Knights of the Galaxy burst in, Mikaal frees Starfire, and Jarko's citadel is destroyed.
Now, Space-Cabbie's passengers don't believe this story is quite true. In fact, they've each heard a different version of it. And why should we believe them? Because they're really Space Ranger and Ultra, the Multi-Alien! Space Ranger's story has a humanoid Starfire from an alternate reality, Jack and Jarko competing in a Twister contest, an attack by the Star Rovers, and everyone talks in a 19th Century dialect. Ultra's is even weirder, with the male, Russian Starfire as Jarko's "pet", a staring contest with THE funniest faces ever put to page, and the sudden arrival of Tommy Tomorrow and the Planeteers. Ultra's story is done in a very Kirby-esque style, with Jack wearing his father's costume, and Mikaal as "Mikky the Star-Boy". The aliens in this piece are among the most original and bizarre I've ever seen, including the one with hands on his face!
As funny and strange as this story was, the characters in them are even odder. Think about it: Once upon a time in the 1950s/1960s, someone at DC thought stories about a cab driver in space, a man with the powers and appearances of four different aliens, and countless other space-based adventurers were good ideas! I'm now curious as to how good these old stories were. No matter when you started reading comics, you have to admit the Silver Age had greater diversity in genres than any other time in the industry's history. (They even had cowboy romance comics!) Don't wait for DC to include this in a trade book. Buy this issue now!
City without Light, part II: issue #56
A: Steven Sadowski (p) & Keith Champagne(i)
Clarence O'Dare reluctantly issues a warrant for The Shade's arrest, after a fourth murder scene with The Shade's shadow substance found on the body. Ted Knight tells Shade he's asked for help in solving these crimes and clearing The Shade's name: Ralph Digby, the Elongated Man. Meanwhile, a new Phantom Lady starts beating information out of the city's underworld. She's joined by a visibly shaken Adam Strange. The Black Condor returns to Opal when he feels there are evil forces at work. He may be right. Dr. Phosphorous has been watching Ted Knight's home waiting for orders from his boss. And Jake "Bobo" Benetti is attacked by a very evil and malicious Shade.
As if things in Opal couldn't get worse, Jack traces Will Payton's energy signature to the Throneworld of the Crown Imperial. The planet's forces immediately fire upon the ship and completely destroy it.
Issue #56 is the first cover painted by Andrew Robinson, (no relation to James). He becomes the book's regular cover artist with #62. The 'dark doings in Opal' subplot is advanced in this book, with more characters entering the mix. Each of them has a role to play in the upcoming "Grand Guignol". Also, notice Barry O'Dare’s smirk as his brothers and sister look down at the murder victim and wonder if The Shade's guilty. It's a little detail I just noticed, but is connected to later events. Subtlety like that is a hallmark of great writing.
"The Welcome Wagon"/"Familiar Faces, Some Forgotten"/"The Secret of Will Payton"/"Worlds Collide", Issues #57-#60
A: Snejbjerg (p) & Champagne (i)
Finally, the conclusion to the story! After their ship is destroyed by the Crown Imperial, Jack and Mikaal are found floating in space protected by Jack's rod. They awaken in a torture chamber, where they meet Jediah Rikane, ruler of the Crown Imperial. Rikane tells that he does have Will Payton, but can't let him go. Payton has the soul of Prince Gavyn, Rikane's predecessor, and another Starman. If anyone else learned that Payton was Gavyn reborn, Rikane would lose his throne and his wife, Merria, Gavyn's widow.
Jack and Mik are thrown into prison and are 'approached' by a two-handed Jarko, (see issue #55). Jack and Mik are overwhelmed by Jarko's gang, until they receive help from other imprisoned heroes: Tigorr from the Omega Men, Fastbak of New Genesis, former Green Lantern Medphyl, and Delaken, a spy from Rann. (Turran Kha is also on the prison planet as Rikane's henchman.) This group of second-string heroes leads a revolt against the prison guards. Jack feels guilty about his part in the death and horror helped cause, but also feels there was no better alternative.
Payton is found and released. Jack tells him about Sadie and is ready to go home. But Payton insists that they stay and liberate Throneworld from Rikane. Jack's too exhausted to argue, so he agrees. Delaken reveals that he had a mass Zeta-beam transporter in place ready to beam the Rannian army to Throneworld. All he needs to do is find the activator hidden by his contact-Queen Merria. The attack on Throneworld goes badly quickly. The prisoners are outnumbered and overwhelmed. Payton is struck down early, but is revived by M'ntorr. M'ntorr was the alien who first trained Prince Gavyn in the use of his cosmic powers. At M'ntorr's touch, Payton is transformed into Gavyn and defeats the opposing army.
M'ntorr explains, at length, how Prince Gavyn was destined to die four times. After his third death in the Crisis on Infinite Earths, his soul, taking the form of cosmic energy, came to Earth and struck Will Payton. Payton's soul moved on, while Gavyn's inhabited the body. After "Payton" died fighting Eclipso, his energy returned to Throneworld and re-formed Payton's body. Payton isn't willing to believe any of this, since he only remembers his life, not Gavyn's. Still, he'll take on Gavyn's form to inspire a revolt against Rikane.
While Payton and the prisoners fight Rikane, Kha, and their forces in the streets, Jack, Delaken, and Medphyl break into the palace and meets Merria. She tells them that the transport activator is hidden in Rikane's throne. All Delaken must do is sit in it, and the nanotechs in his body will react with those in the throne.
That's when Medphyl kills him. He reveals himself as a spy for Rikane, while Rikane is draining away Payton's power and life. Lucky for both heroes, Jack is able to mentally call his rod to his side, and M'ntorr appears to tell Payton how to reclaim his power. While Payton kills Rikane, Mikaal kills Turran Kha, and Jack kills Medphyl. It's only the second time Jack's ever killed someone, and he still hates it. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Jack sits down in the throne. Suddenly, the Rannian army appears and finally defeats Rikane's forces.
Turns out, when Sardath cloned a new body for Jack back on Rann, he included nanotechs in Jack's body similar to Delaken's. He also included a neural transmitter that would compel Jack to sit in the throne. 'I'd hate to play chess with you', says Jack. 'I don't even know what chess is', replies Sardath.
Sardath sends Mikaal back to Earth with a Zeta-beam first. Payton is about to go, but decides to see Merria first. When he recalls the last thing Gavyn said to her before he died, they both begin to think he is Gavyn reborn. Payton decides to stay and help rebuild the empire. Jack transports at last, marveling at all the things he's seen and how much the role of Starman means to him. But even after all the fantastic sights and bizarre adventures, his Opal still looks as lovely as ever.
Sardath admits that he knew Jack's journey would take him to Throneworld, hence the nanotechs in his body. This begs the question, did Sardath know Will Payton was on Throneworld? Or did he just think a journey by one Starman meant a visit to the home of another. Perhaps Sardath traced Payton's energy signature to Throneworld, and "neglected" not to tell Jack. Call it a plot hole or a deus ex machina. I say it makes Sardath a more cunning and dangerous strategist. Even his line about not knowing what chess is sounds like the opening blow in a psychological war. Scary guy.
Longtime Adam Strange fans will know about the flaw in Zeta beam transport: it's temporary. Anyone "zapped" with a Zeta beam will reappear at their point of departure after the Zeta radiation has worn off. That's why Strange can't stay on Rann permanently. Of course, one can argue that Mik and Jack were beamed with a more advanced version of Zeta beam technology, or even that the story of Jack and Mik disappearing and returning to Throneworld is a tale yet to be told. Frankly, I couldn't care less. Our boys are back home. That's all that matters.
Wow. This article took up over 8 pages, according to my Word program. We've seen Mikaal change into a warrior who thrills in combat. We've seen some obscure and unusual DC characters dusted off and brought out for one more story. We've seen death, rebirth, love, loss, adventure, politics, and history. We've seen the legacies of two Starmen brought together, as another added to the legacy of Superman, and a fourth learned his sad destiny. And we saw Jack Knight finally become comfortable in his role as Starman. "Stars My Destination" is about growth, change, and transformation. This could be the best story arc of the entire series.
If it wasn't for "Grand Guignol". . .
To see more of Adam Strange, and other Silver Age DC space stories, pick up the TPB 'Mystery in Space'. It was nominated for an Eisner Award in 1999. The Justice League adventure Strange refers to when Jack and Mik first land happened in 'JLA' #22-23. Swamp Thing's trip through space was related in the late #50s, early #60s of his series, soon to be collected in a TPB.
Will Payton's time as Starman can be seen in the first 'Starman' series from 1988-1992. 45 issues, all for sale cheap on e-bay. His death on the moon was in 'Eclipso: The Darkness Within' crossover limited series. Prince Gavyn first appeared in 'Adventure Comics' #467. Details of his death, including his last words to Merria, can be found in 'Starman Annual' #1.
One more thing: I encouraged everyone to order the Tony Harris/Alex Ross Starman poster at the end of the last article. I've only now discovered that such items are not usually kept available for re-orders. Nevertheless, it's a fantastic piece of work and worth tracking down.
Next time, in part VII, I take a look at "Grand Guignol". If you hate how I've been revealing the endings to the other story arcs, you're in luck. I can't say anything about this one! Why? It would spoil that story if I told you everything. Just like you can't know who Kaiser Sose is in "The Usual Suspects", I can't tell you the secret behind the mysterious Mr. Culp.
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